Welfare Reform

Robert Waldmann is back

I didn’t mean to stop blogging for so long. I apologize. I also apologize for this post which is one of my occasional screeds against welfare reform. Oddly there seems to be almost a consensus that welfare reform was a good policy. I think this is based entirely on the fact that, by pure coincidence, it was implemented during the late 90s boom.

Matt Zetlin wrote

One thing that hasn’t happened yet — but should — is that liberals who are noting that Republican obstructionism and the 60 vote Senate are the primary causes of a frustrating first year for Obama should become much more sympathetic to Bill Clinton.
Now, there is room to complain about his priorities in office and whether NAFTA and welfare reform were really key components of any type of progressive or liberal agenda, but it seems impossible to say that the only reason that the Clinton administration didn’t produce the progressive results one might have wanted had much to do with Clinton himself.

I comment.

Good points and congratulations on the link from Yglesias. I object very strongly to two words in your post “welfare reform.” You write that it was arguably not a “key component[] of any type of progressive or liberal agenda,” For the sake of debate, I’ll scotch the “arguably” and interpret “one can complain” as meaning “it is true that.” Your praising welfare reform with faint damnation is still, to put it as politely as I can, batshit insane.

You do know that there are over 6,000,000 food stamps recipients in the USA with 0 cash income (nothing to live on but food stamps) don’t you ? I’d say that situation has a whole whole whole hell of a lot less than nothing to do with ” any type of progressive or liberal agenda,” It is also true that TANF enrollment has barely increased during the first 16 months of the current recession (warning out of date pdf from an advocacy organization or try the official verrrry slowwwww opening link don’t blame me blame HHS gluttons for boredom can go to the index for maybe more data) and is about one third of peak AFDC enrollment. Welfare reform caused and is causing immense human suffering. There are desperately desperately poor people in the USA (I define that as income less than half the poverty line) because the social safety net was destroyed by a bill signed into law by Clinton.

The perception that welfare reform was good policy or OK policy or not terrible policy is based entirely on the fact that, when it was enacted, the economy was booming. The poor did OK in the late 90s in spite of welfare reform. The non poor did very well. You can’t judge a policy looking only at events during an extraordinary boom. Look the US poor did very well indeed during the war in Vietnam, but it was terrible policy. I assert that your reasoning is absolutely along the lines of admitting that the war in Vietnam was not a “key component[] of any type of progressive or liberal agenda.” I really mean that. Each consists of evaluating a policy only by looking at what happened at the same time. We can’t blame welfare reform on the filibuster. We can’t even blame it on the Republicans in congress. They did not have the votes to over ride a veto. Clinton decided not to veto a welfare reform bill. He condemned millions of people to horrible horrible poverty (as opposed to merely horrible poverty without welfare reform).

I also find it odd that you classify NAFTA along with welfare reform. I strongly support NAFTA and I don’t like hearing it associated with welfare reform. What was wrong with NAFTA ? I’d consider free trade to be a key component of any progressive or liberal agenda. That is because protection condemns third world workers to horrible horrible horrible poverty. The only case for protection is that it is needed to defend hereditary privilege (the advantage of being born a citizen of a first world country). No decent progressive or liberal can support any such thing. Instead people who want to unite the forces of egalitarians and selfish racists who want to keep the third world poor convince themselves that trade is bad for the third world.

Now, in general, I absolutely agree with your excellent post. It is simply insane to act as if Clinton ran the country when he was President. It is especially insane to act as if he ran the country when the only power he had was the veto. However, he did not use the veto when any decent person would have done so. That’s a fact and the only excuse would have been that there were 67 senators willing to over ride a veto (there weren’t 60 senators willing to vote for cloture it passed under reconciliation).